Arctic land and seas account for up to 25 percent of world's carbon sink

October 14, 2009

In a new study in the journal Ecological Monographs, ecologists estimate that Arctic lands and oceans are responsible for up to 25 percent of the global net sink of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Under current predictions of global warming, this Arctic sink could be diminished or reversed, potentially accelerating predicted rates of climate change.

In their review paper, David McGuire of the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and his colleagues show that the Arctic has been a carbon sink since the end of the last Ice Age, which over time has accounted for between zero and 25 percent, or up to about 800 million metric tons, of the global carbon sink. On average, says McGuire, the Arctic accounts for 10-15 percent of the Earth's carbon sink. But the rapid rate of climate change in the Arctic - about twice that of lower latitudes - could eliminate the sink and possibly make the Arctic a source of carbon dioxide.

Carbon generally enters the oceans and land masses of the Arctic from the atmosphere and largely accumulates in permafrost, the frozen layer of soil underneath the land's surface. Unlike active soils, permafrost does not decompose its carbon; thus, the carbon becomes trapped in the frozen soil. Cold conditions at the surface have also slowed the rate of organic matter decomposition, McGuire says, allowing Arctic carbon accumulation to exceed its release.

But recent warming trends could change this balance. Warmer temperatures can accelerate the rate of surface decomposition, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. More concerning, says McGuire, is that the permafrost has begun to thaw, exposing previously frozen soil to decomposition and erosion. These changes could reverse the historical role of the Arctic as a sink for carbon.

"In the short term, warming temperatures could expose more Arctic carbon to decomposition," says McGuire. "And with permafrost melting, there will be more available carbon to decompose."

On the scale of a few decades, the thawing permafrost could also result in a more waterlogged Arctic, says McGuire, a situation that could encourage the activity of methane-producing organisms. Currently, the Arctic is a substantial source of methane to the atmosphere: as much as 50 million metric tons of methane is released per year, in comparison to the 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide the Arctic sequesters yearly. But methane is a very potent greenhouse gas - about 23 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide on a 100-year time scale. If the release of Arctic methane accelerates, global warming could increase at much faster rates.

"We don't understand methane very well, and its releases to the atmosphere are more episodic than the exchanges of carbon dioxide with the atmosphere," says McGuire. "It's important to pay attention to methane dynamics because of methane's substantial potential to accelerate global warming."

But uncertainties still abound about the response of the Arctic system to climate change. For example, the authors write, global warming may produce longer growing seasons that promote plant photosynthesis, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; however, increasingly dry conditions may might counteract and overcome this effect. Similarly, dry conditions can lead to increased fire prevalence, releasing even more carbon.

McGuire contends that only specific regional studies can determine which areas are likely to experience changes in response to climate change.

"If the response of the arctic carbon cycle to climate change results in substantial net releases of greenhouse gases, this could compromise mitigation efforts that we have in mind for controlling the carbon cycle," he says.
-end-
This study was sponsored by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, the Climate in the Cryosphere Program, and the International Arctic Science Committee.

Ecological Society of America

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.